Anthony van Dyck was largely responsible for introducing the double or ‘friendship’ portrait to Britain. The informal composition of this painting as well as the quantities of shimmering silk on display perfectly illustrate the appeal of Van Dyck’s new style to aristocratic British patrons eager for innovation.
The two women in the portrait, Dorothy and Elizabeth, were the eldest surviving daughters of Thomas, 1st Viscount Savage. It was once thought that the picture was painted around the time of Dorothy’s scandalous elopement in 1637, and that she was the sister seated on the right. But this theory has been disproved, and a contemporary copy of the painting identifies Dorothy as standing on the left. Elizabeth wears a saffron-coloured gown – a colour said to have been worn by brides in ancient Greece. She is the newly-wed receiving roses from Cupid, the god of erotic love.
The two women in this portrait, Dorothy and Elizabeth, were the eldest surviving daughters of Thomas, 1st Viscount Savage. It was once thought that the picture was painted around the time of Dorothy’s scandalous elopement in 1637, and that she was the sister seated on the right, receiving the roses that were an attribute of her namesake, Saint Dorothy.
At this time there was strong anti-Catholic feeling in England, and a contemporary account states that ‘Lord Andover had been married to Lady Dorothy Savage by a Catholic priest without the knowledge of their parents, that his father and mother were consequently "in great affliction" and that Lady Savage "pretends a great displeasure"'. It was even rumoured that Dorothy had converted to Catholicism. Elizabeth was included in the gossip as she had also been married by a Catholic priest, to Lord Thimbleby. But it was in fact the Savage family who were Catholic and Lord Andover, a Protestant, who had married without his parents’ permission.
This theory and the attendant rumours have now been disproved. A contemporary copy of the painting has descended through the Savage family, bearing inscriptions that identify Dorothy as the sister standing on the left. Elizabeth wears a saffron-coloured gown – at the time, it was believed that this was the colour worn by brides in ancient Greece. Elizabeth is the newly-wed receiving roses from Cupid, the god of erotic love, and the flowers become a symbol of love and not that of a saint.
Anthony van Dyck was largely responsible for introducing the double or ‘friendship’ portrait to Britain, and this picture is likely to have been entirely by his hand without studio assistants. The informal composition and quantities of shimmering silk perfectly illustrate the appeal of Van Dyck’s new style to aristocratic British patrons eager for innovation. The wide, deep necklines of their dresses reveal the smooth skin of each woman’s décolletage, and their necks are encircled with pearls. The strong colour of Elizabeth’s gown is softened by the deep warm brown of her shawl. Dorothy adjusts her own shawl over her shoulder, revealing a long gold chain over her arm and across her body. Both women have their hair dressed in the height of fashion, with ringlets and corkscrew curls over the forehead and brushing their cheeks. There is a strong family likeness: both women have large brown eyes and long faces with full, pink cheeks and rounded chins.
But the faces of the sisters hardly bear witness to a celebration of wedded harmony. Both appear disengaged and distant, if not outright unhappy; Elizabeth’s hand holding the rose almost seems to crush it. The background too, seems unpromising, with heavy, grey clouds overshadowing a garden revealed by a dark green curtain that is drawn back awkwardly, displaying inelegant, angular folds.
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